Computer Support Specialists and Systems Administrators
Rapid job growth is projected over the 2004-14 period.
There are many paths of entry to these occupations.
Job prospects should be best for college graduates who are
up to date with the latest skills and technologies; certifications
and practical experience are essential for persons without degrees.
Nature of the Work
In the last decade, computers have become an integral part of
everyday life, used for a variety of reasons at home, in the workplace,
and at schools. Of course, almost every computer user encounters
a problem occasionally, whether it is the disaster of a crashing
hard drive or the annoyance of a forgotten password. The explosive
use of computers has created a high demand for specialists to
provide advice to users, as well as for day-to-day administration,
maintenance, and support of computer systems and networks.
Computer support specialists provide technical assistance,
support, and advice to customers and other users. This occupational
group includes technical support specialists and help-desk
technicians. These troubleshooters interpret problems and
provide technical support for hardware, software, and systems.
They answer telephone calls, analyze problems by using automated
diagnostic programs, and resolve recurring difficulties. Support
specialists may work either within a company that uses computer
systems or directly for a computer hardware or software vendor.
Increasingly, these specialists work for help-desk or support
services firms, for which they provide computer support to clients
on a contract basis.
Technical support specialists answer telephone calls from their
organizations’ computer users and may run automatic diagnostics
programs to resolve problems. Working on monitors, keyboards,
printers, and mice, they install, modify, clean, and repair computer
hardware and software. They also may write training manuals and
train computer users in how to use new computer hardware and software.
In addition, technical support specialists oversee the daily performance
of their company’s computer systems and evaluate software programs
with regard to their usefulness.
Help-desk technicians assist computer users with the inevitable
hardware and software questions that are not addressed in a product’s
instruction manual. Help-desk technicians field telephone calls
and e-mail messages from customers who are seeking guidance on
technical problems. In responding to these requests for guidance,
help-desk technicians must listen carefully to the customer, ask
questions to diagnose the nature of the problem, and then patiently
walk the customer through the problem-solving steps.
Help-desk technicians deal directly with customer issues, and
companies value them as a source of feedback on their products.
These technicians are consulted for information about what gives
customers the most trouble, as well as other customer concerns.
Most computer support specialists start out at the help desk.
Networkadministrators and computer systems
administrators design, install, and support an organization’s
local-area network (LAN), wide-area network (WAN), network segment,
Internet, or intranet system. They provide day-to-day onsite administrative
support for software users in a variety of work environments,
including professional offices, small businesses, government,
and large corporations. They maintain network hardware and software,
analyze problems, and monitor the network to ensure its availability
to system users. These workers gather data to identify customer
needs and then use the information to identify, interpret, and
evaluate system and network requirements. Administrators also
may plan, coordinate, and implement network security measures.
Systems administrators are the information technology employees
responsible for the efficient use of networks by organizations.
They ensure that the design of an organization’s computer site
allows all of the components, including computers, the network,
and software, to fit together and work properly. Furthermore,
they monitor and adjust the performance of existing networks and
continually survey the current computer site to determine future
network needs. Administrators also troubleshoot problems reported
by users and by automated network monitoring systems and make
recommendations for enhancements in the implementation of future
servers and networks.
In some organizations, computer security specialists may
plan, coordinate, and implement the organization’s information
security. These workers may be called upon to educate users about
computer security, install security software, monitor the network
for security breaches, respond to cyber attacks, and, in some
cases, gather data and evidence to be used in prosecuting cyber
crime. The responsibilities of computer security specialists has
increased in recent years as there has been a large increase in
the number of cyber attacks on data and networks. This and other
growing specialty occupations reflect an increasing emphasis on
client-server applications, the expansion of Internet and intranet
applications, and the demand for more end-user support.
Computer support specialists and systems administrators normally
work in well-lighted, comfortable offices or computer laboratories.
They usually work about 40 hours a week, but that may include
being “on call” via pager or telephone for rotating evening or
weekend work if the employer requires computer support over extended
hours. Overtime may be necessary when unexpected technical problems
arise. Like other workers who type on a keyboard for long periods,
computer support specialists and systems administrators are susceptible
to eyestrain, back discomfort, and hand and wrist problems such
as carpal tunnel syndrome.
Due to the heavy emphasis on helping all types of computer users,
computer support specialists and systems administrators constantly
interact with customers and fellow employees as they answer questions
and give valuable advice. Those who work as consultants are away
from their offices much of the time, sometimes spending months
working in a client’s office.
As computer networks expand, more computer support specialists
and systems administrators may be able to connect to a customer’s
computer remotely, using modems, laptops, e-mail, and the Internet,
to provide technical support to computer users. This capability
would reduce or eliminate travel to the customer’s workplace.
Systems administrators also can administer and configure networks
and servers remotely, although this practice is not as common
as it is among computer support specialists.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
Due to the wide range of skills required, there are many paths
of entry to a job as a computer support specialist or systems
administrator. While there is no universally accepted way to prepare
for a job as a computer support specialist, many employers prefer
to hire persons with some formal college education. A bachelor’s
degree in computer science or information systems is a prerequisite
for some jobs; however, other jobs may require only a computer-related
associate’s degree. For systems administrators, many employers
seek applicants with bachelor’s degrees, although not necessarily
in a computer-related field.
A number of companies are becoming more flexible about requiring
a college degree for support positions. However, certification
and practical experience demonstrating these skills will be essential
for applicants without a degree. The completion of a certification
training program, offered by a variety of vendors and product
makers, may help some people to qualify for entry-level positions.
Relevant computer experience may substitute for formal education.
Beginning computer support specialists usually work for organizations
that deal directly with customers or in-house users. Then they
may advance into more responsible positions in which they use
what they have learned from customers to improve the design and
efficiency of future products. Job promotions usually depend more
on performance than on formal education. Eventually, some computer
support specialists become applications developers, designing
products rather than assisting users. Computer support specialists
at hardware and software companies often enjoy great upward mobility;
advancement sometimes comes within months of one’s initial employment.
Entry-level network and computer systems administrators are involved
in routine maintenance and monitoring of computer systems, typically
working behind the scenes in an organization. After gaining experience
and expertise, they often are able to advance into more senior-level
positions, in which they take on more responsibilities. For example,
senior network and computer systems administrators may present
recommendations to management on matters related to a company’s
network. They also may translate the needs of an organization
into a set of technical requirements based on the available technology.
As with support specialists, administrators may become software
engineers, actually involved in the designing of the system or
network and not just its day-to-day administration.
Persons interested in becoming a computer support specialist
or systems administrator must have strong problem-solving, analytical,
and communication skills, because troubleshooting and helping
others are vital parts of the job. The constant interaction with
other computer personnel, customers, and employees requires computer
support specialists and systems administrators to communicate
effectively on paper, via e-mail, or in person. Strong writing
skills are useful in preparing manuals for employees and customers.
As technology continues to improve, computer support specialists
and systems administrators must keep their skills current and
acquire new ones. Many continuing education programs are provided
by employers, hardware and software vendors, colleges and universities,
and private training institutions. Professional development seminars
offered by computing services firms also can enhance one’s skills
and advancement opportunities.
Computer support specialists and systems administrators held
about 797,000 jobs in 2004. Of these, approximately 518,000 were
computer support specialists and around 278,000 were network and
computer systems administrators. Although they worked in a wide
range of industries, about 23 percent of all computer support
specialists and systems administrators were employed in professional,
scientific, and technical services industries, principally computer
systems design and related services. Other organizations that
employed substantial numbers of these workers include administrative
and support services companies, banks, government agencies, insurance
companies, educational institutions, and wholesale and retail
vendors of computers, office equipment, appliances, and home electronic
equipment. Many computer support specialists worked for manufacturers
of computers, semiconductors, and other electronic components.
Employers of computer support specialists and systems administrators
range from startup companies to established industry leaders.
With the continued development of the Internet, telecommunications,
and e-mail, industries not typically associated with computers—such
as construction—increasingly need computer workers. Small and
large firms across all industries are expanding or developing
computer systems, creating an immediate need for computer support
specialists and systems administrators.
Job prospects should be best for college graduates who are up
to date with the latest skills and technologies, particularly
if they have supplemented their formal education with some relevant
work experience. Employers will continue to seek computer specialists
who possess a strong background in fundamental computer skills
combined with good interpersonal and communication skills. Due
to the demand for computer support specialists and systems administrators
over the next decade, those who have strong computer skills, but
do not have a bachelor’s degree, should continue to qualify for
some entry-level positions. However, certifications and practical
experience are essential for persons without degrees.
Employment of computer support specialists is expected to increase
faster than the
average for all occupations through 2014, as organizations
continue to adopt increasingly sophisticated technology and integrate
it into their systems. Job growth will continue to be driven by
the ongoing expansion of the computer system design and related
services industry, which is projected to remain one of the fastest-growing
industries in the U.S. economy. Growth will not be as explosive
as during the previous decade, however, as the information technology
industry matures and some of these jobs are increasingly outsourced
Job growth among computer support specialists reflects the rapid
pace of improved technology. As computers and software become
more complex, support specialists will be needed to provide technical
assistance to customers and other users. New mobile technologies,
such as the wireless Internet, will continue to create a demand
for these workers to familiarize and educate computer users. Consulting
opportunities for computer support specialists also should continue
to grow as businesses increasingly need help managing, upgrading,
and customizing ever more complex computer systems. However, growth
in employment of support specialists may be tempered somewhat
as firms continue to cut costs by shifting more routine work abroad
to countries where workers are highly skilled and labor costs
are lower. Physical location is not as important for computer
support specialists as it is for others, because these workers
can provide assistance remotely and support services can be provided
around the clock.
Employment of systems administrators is expected to increase
much faster than the average
for all occupations as firms continue to invest heavily in securing
computer networks. Companies are looking for workers who are knowledgeable
about the function and administration of networks. Such employees
have become increasingly hard to find as systems administration
has moved from being a separate function within corporations to
one that forms a crucial element of business in an increasingly
high-technology economy. Also, demand for computer security specialists
will grow as businesses and government continue to invest heavily
in “cyber security,” protecting vital computer networks and electronic
infrastructures from attack. The information security field is
expected to generate many opportunities over the next decade as
firms across all industries place a high priority on safeguarding
their data and systems.
The growth of electronic commerce means that more establishments
use the Internet to conduct their business online. This growth
translates into a need for information technology specialists
who can help organizations use technology to communicate with
employees, clients, and consumers. Growth in these areas also
is expected to fuel demand for specialists who are knowledgeable
about network, data, and communications security.
Median annual earnings of computer support specialists were $40,430
in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $30,980 and
$53,010. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $24,190, and the
highest 10 percent earned more than $69,110 . Median annual earnings
in the industries employing the largest numbers of computer support
specialists in May 2004 were as follows:
Management of companies and rnterprises
Computer systems design and related services
Colleges, universities, and professional
Elementary and secondary schools
Median annual earnings of network and computer systems administrators
were $58,190 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between
$46,260 and $73,620. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $37,100,
and the highest 10 percent earned more than $91,300. Median annual
earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of network
and computer systems administrators in May 2004 were as follows:
Wired telecommunications carriers
Computer systems design and related services
Management of companies and rnterprises
Elementary and secondary schools
Colleges, universities, and professional
According to Robert Half International, starting salaries in
2005 ranged from $26,250 to $53,750 for help-desk and technical
support staff and from $44,500 to $63,250 for more senior technical
support specialists. For systems administrators, starting salaries
in 2005 ranged from $47,250 to $70,500.
Other computer specialists include computer programmers, computer
software engineers, computer systems analysts, and computer scientists
and database administrators.